I slid my feet out of the stirrups and sat up. My doctor sighed.
“You’re much too young to be dealing with any of this…”
Man, if I had a dollar for every time I heard that.
Between two knees that will need to be replaced sooner rather than later and having operations to fix two severe cases of pelvic organ prolapse (POP) within 14 months of each other, immediately followed by a diagnosis of interstitial cystitis, or “painful bladder” disorder, I can say with certainty that my body doesn’t care that I am only 35 years old. This defiant attitude from my body has forced me to redefine my sense of self as a woman as I continue on my life’s journey.
The day my uterus slid out of my body
It happened while I was in the shower; I felt something between my legs where nothing ought to have been. Panicked, I grabbed a mirror and did some investigating. I was terrified. I could hear my heart pounding inside my head like a bass drum as I held my breath in disbelief. Exhaling, I stood up and looked in the full-length mirror on my door.
I still looked the same on the outside, but inside, nothing was ever going to be the same. Little did I know that this one event—my uterus sliding out of my body—would lead to moments that would shake my sense of identity and become a central part of my personal narrative.
Too young for POP
Within months of my hysterectomy, I found out that my vaginal vault, bladder, and rectum were also prolapsing, and another surgery was needed to sling them up, as it were. Back I was again, at a new specialist, hearing the same thing, “But, you’re so young…” as if I had a choice. Subsequent prolapsing is a common occurrence, but not one that happens so close to the first prolapse, and certainly not one that happens to women my age.
POP affects about 50 percent of women who have given birth, with the average age being fifty-six. By age thirty-four, I’d had two instances of POP so severe that they required surgery. While surgery is the primary way to treat cases of POP as severe as mine, there are other options available if the conditions are caught before they progress, such as a pessary and pelvic floor physical therapy.
I believe in living my life out loud, and I decided that this would be no different, even though many doctors call POP a “secret medical epidemic…rarely talked about in polite company.” I spoke openly, wanting to help anyone through my tales of surgical successes in the face of physical failures. However, it didn’t do much to help me personally. It is only now I am able to really understand how much everything I have dealt with has distorted my sense of self, and I’m only scratching the surface of my own understanding.
Living with pelvic organ prolapse
From having to watch what I eat to avoid a bladder flare up to keeping track of where restrooms are to not being able to wear certain things or move my body as I want to in fear of discomfort, my body’s constant evolution means I need to evolve what it means to be me, first, and second, a woman.
I no longer bleed monthly, and in many ways, for multiple physical reasons, sex has lost its physical appeal, though I am quite far from losing the desire. I still feel urges, but I know that acting upon them as often as I would like usually causes me physical pain, aches ranging from vaginal burning to a feeling of knives being rammed inside me, for up to days at a time. Orgasms are often far from the pleasurable escape they once were, as my insides are strung up and secured to my sacrum, which provides a new layer of discomfort.
I spend a lot of time in my head, weighing the physical ramifications against the power of my sexual desires and usually, I end up figuring it isn’t worth it, which is an awful way to live. A lot of my identity is tied up in my sexuality. To lose that completely is a loss I don’t know I can handle.
Redefining my womanhood without a uterus
When it comes to being a woman, I fully understand that the presence or absence of a uterus is in no way a defining trait. Women have come before me, and will come after, who do not have those anatomical parts for whatever reason, and it does not make them any less of a woman. Womanhood is an awareness of self, and has nothing to do with the physical body in the least. I know that now; younger me had no clue.
However, as someone who has never identified as overly feminine and whose body didn’t quite develop the way the health textbooks said it would (ample breasts did not spring eternal from behind my nipples, and I was the only person I knew who yearned for pubic hair), my younger self put a lot of stock in the naive idea that a fully functioning uterus would make me feel like a woman.
In many ways, that line of thinking worked for me. I remember starting my period the first day of my freshman year of high school and feeling like I could finally understand Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. And the absence of bleeding as my skin stretched over my swollen belly with each of my pregnancies allowed me to feel soft, maternal. In hindsight, I realize I assumed that this life-bringing organ was my key to feeling like a woman. And when it fell out, I had to figure out what that meant for my sense of who I was and could be. I haven’t quite worked that all out yet, but I get closer every day.
Same woman, but still too young for this
Some days, it’s how I style my hair or apply mascara to my light blond eyelashes. Others, it’s looking at my naked body in the mirror and having the same realization I had that night it all changed—I may not have everything inside of me I once did, but I’m still a strong woman raising three strong daughters, and that is something that even a failing body can’t take away from me.
Through everything I have dealt with, and continue to deal with, I try to remain upbeat. Even if I need a day or two to live inside my head and concentrate on what makes me who I am, I try to remember that at my core, I am still the woman I was before all of this started. I fully believe in playing the hand that I am dealt, but in all honesty, I am much too young for this.